THE BLOG

Primary Debates, Not a Coronation

02/02/2015 09:05 am ET | Updated Apr 04, 2015

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The Democratic and Republican presidential field of candidates is just starting to take shape. Though Hillary Clinton is being widely viewed as the inevitable nominee of the Democrats, and Jeb Bush is seen by many as the most likely nominee of the Republicans, the problems facing our nation are too great for there not to be contested primaries with vigorous primary debates.

Our nation was founded on the idea of a marketplace of ideas. Both major political parties will produce stronger presidential nominee in 2016 -- and the American people will be much better served -- if, in seeking those nominations, candidates must clearly explain their ideas and have them critically examined in contested primaries. Of course, candidates seeking the nomination must present a range of views, if the primaries are to be effective in this way. Registered Democrats and Republicans must be given not only the opportunity to vote, but a real choice among competing views and solutions.

The importance of a real choice is made crystal clear by an examination of our own area of expertise -- Social Security. For too long, the terms of the debate over Social Security have been set by insiders who have ignored not only the will of the people, but the facts. Like a distorted mirror in a fun house, the distorted premise underlying the debate has been that Social Security must be scaled back (with a different equally incorrect justification each time). This wrong picture has led to the misguided insider question, how do politicians do the supposedly responsible thing, and cut Social Security, without losing their jobs, given the American people's opposition? And reflecting the distorted premise and question, the public debate has focused on who truly wants to "save" Social Security and who wants to destroy it by privatizing it? Not surprisingly, given Social Security's widespread popularity among virtually all segments of the population, all politicians claim to want to "strengthen" it.

The mainstream debate over Social Security has been devoid of values. It has been disconnected from what the American people want. or, most importantly, how to better achieve our Social Security system's most important goal -- the provision of widespread protection for working Americans and their families against lost earnings in the event of disability, death, or old age.

Fortunately, thanks to Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and many others, that distorted discussion is beginning to change into a much more balanced, honest inquiry: Should we expand Social Security, should we keep scheduled benefits as they are, or should we scale back benefits? And, if the answer is expand or keep them as they are, what is the fairest way to distribute the costs to ensure that all benefits can be paid in full and on time for today's workers?

When polled, the American people overwhelmingly answer that they want benefits expanded, not cut. They prefer to have the wealthiest among us pay their fair share, but if necessary, they are willing to pay more themselves, as well. But unless polled, most people don't even realize that expansion is a possibility. Thanks to a billionaire-funded, decades-long campaign to undermine confidence in Social Security, the younger you are, the more likely you are to believe the program won't be there for you.

The best way for Americans to understand that expanding Social Security is a choice and that cutting Social Security is also a choice, not an inevitable law of nature, is through contested Democratic primaries where one or more of the candidates on the debate stage is Warren, Sanders, Brown or someone else who supports expansion. (No Republican politician has yet come out for expansion.) A vigorously contested Democratic primary is a must to strengthen all the candidates and make sure the case for expanding Social Security is heard.

Make no mistake: the stakes are high. Our nation is on the cusp of a retirement income crisis. Two-thirds of working Americans today will be unable to maintain their standard of living in old age even if they all work until age 65 -- unless we change the retirement equation. Traditional defined benefit pensions are rapidly vanishing. Individual Retirement Account and 401K plans fall woefully short for the vast majority. Health care costs are high. Young Americans struggle to pay off student debt; many parents borrow against their homes to help their children through college. Housing prices of many have fallen, with some losing homes and others home equity. Wages have mostly been stagnant for all but the top 1%.

Decades of upward redistribution of income and wealth have led to such stagnant wages and the hollowing out of the middle class. An expanded Social Security is a step to lessening the looming retirement income crisis and slowing the upward redistribution of wealth. A further reduced Social Security system will make both problems worse. And without an open debate, where all candidates must state their views plainly, a scaled back Social Security -- or worse -- is what we are likely to get.

Other issues, including, for example, climate change, immigration policy, and foreign policy, also cry out for full-throated debate both in the primaries of both major parties and in the general election. It will take more than a national discussion, of course, for these issues to be honestly debated. Moneyed interests, which have produced limited, often dishonest discussions and choices are not going away. But we believe that the American people, given a well-framed choice by leaders who can articulate their positive visions, will win the day, perhaps not in one election cycle alone, but eventually.

To recapture our democracy, we need open, contested primaries and at least one candidate who isn't afraid to fight back against the moneyed interests. Let's remember: We once overthrew a monarchy to become a free people. Let's not make 2016 a coronation for either Party.

Nancy Altman, the author of The Battle for Social Security, and Eric Kingson, a professor of social work at Syracuse University, are the founding co-directors of Social Security Works and co-chair the Strengthen Social Security Coalition . The authors both served as staff to the 1982 National Commission on Social Security Reform (the so-called Greenspan Commission).

They are also the authors of the best-selling book on why now is the time to expand Social Security, Social Security Works! Why Social Security Isn't Going Broke and How Expanding It Will Help Us All.